Sharon Opens 'Gates of Hell'

Ariel Sharon has "opened the gates of hell," declared Hamas in response to the targeted killing on Monday of its founder and spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, as he returned from a mosque in Gaza City. The inexplicable and widely condemned killing is sure to spark severe repercussions, not only for the Israeli people but perhaps for the United States as well.

In its fiery statement, Hamas sets its sights, for the very first time, on the U.S: "The Zionists didn't carry out their operation without getting the consent of the terrorist American administration, and it must take responsibility for this crime ... All the Muslims of the world will be honored to join in on the retaliation for this crime."

The White House's reaction to the assassination has been typically equivocal. On the one hand, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice hit the news circuit claiming that the U.S. neither knew of nor pre-approved the planned hit. But then White House press secretary Scott McClellan refused to issue a condemnation, choosing instead to regurgitate the official White House line: "Israel has a right to defend herself." He added, "I would point out Hamas is a terrorist organization and Sheikh Yassin has engaged in terrorism."

So, does that make killing Yassin a good idea?

That Israel has the right to defend itself is, of course, true. But to claim that the targeted assassination of a quadriplegic returning from prayer constitutes "self-defense" is ludicrous. Yassin clearly has the blood of innocents on his hands and few would deny that he's a criminal. But to confuse what is justifiable with what is effective is, in the most literal sense, dangerous. Or as Israeli columnist, and former member of the Israeli Knesset, Uri Avnery put it: "This is worse than a crime, it is an act of stupidity!"

There are several theories as to why the Israeli government chose to kill Yassin, especially at this time. The only line of explanation that dominates the evening news of course is that Yassin was a terrorist, i.e. a reprehensible murderer who deserved to die. A person is stripped entirely of his humanity at the mere utterance of that word, "terrorist."

But the fact remains -- even if we do accept that reasoning -- Yassin wasn't socked away in a spider hole, the focus of a long-standing manhunt. He lived a public life traveling along a well-known route to and from the mosque. Sharon could have killed him at any time. So why now?

Some say the act was motivated by politics. Sharon was considering the historic step of withdrawing from Gaza, which undoubtedly incensed the Israeli right. The hardliners believe either that all the land between the Red Sea and the Jordan river constitute Eretz Yisrael (the biblical land of Israel which, in their view, still belongs to Israel) or, at the very least, that no land should be conceded until terrorism ceases. In that context, a successful and high profile assassination of a well-known opposition leader would ostensibly mollify these crucial political allies by playing to Israeli nationalism and might.

Others claim the hit was aimed toward, or to be more precise, at the Palestinian general population. Sharon and others in the Knesset may have feared that a withdrawal of this magnitude could be perceived as a sign of weakness. Though the Israeli military remains one of the most powerful in the world, the specter of the holocaust looms large in the nation's consciousness and plays a powerful role in shaping its policy. An assertion of military dominance by striking at the symbolic heart of the Palestinian resistance could quiet fears that Israel was unable to defend itself.

There's also the possibility -- difficult as it may be to imagine -- that Sharon truly believes that assassination is the most effective strategy for dealing with terrorism. Though he has failed miserably to date -- Sharon's years in office have been among the most bloody in Israeli history -- the Israeli prime minister is unwavering in his belief that the ruthless application of force will ultimately secure the Palestinians' submission to Israel's will. The recent string of assassinations of Hamas leaders is then just one part of this broader policy of repression.

This discredited argument assumes two thoroughly unsupportable ideas. First, this strategy assumes that terrorism is sustained primarily by the presence of a small number of charismatic and powerful leaders who are successful at recruiting new suicide bombers. Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert at Harvard University, points out in her recent book Terror in the Name of God, that terrorism thrives because humiliation and anger (in this case, at the ongoing occupation) persist, providing the necessary conditions for recruitment. In other words, the killing of an esteemed spiritual leader only strengthens the conditions that created the climate for terrorism to thrive in the first place.

The second assumption of Sharon's modus operandi is that Palestinians have no legitimate grievance. Though the violence reaped by Hamas and others in response to Israeli occupation is truly abhorrent, the motivation behind their actions remains no less pertinent or valid. Though it's seldom if ever mentioned in the major U.S. press (it's actually more common in the Israeli press), the Israeli occupation of Palestine is the longest standing occupation in the world. More than 60 percent of Palestinians live below the poverty line (making less than $2 a day) without clean water or enough food; endure endless and humiliating checkpoints every day as they struggle to make a living; and watch Israeli soldiers kill innocent friends and family with numbing regularity.

The U.S. media, however, seems unable to go beyond the twisted logic of Ariel Sharon, as mimicked by Bush, Powell and Rice, that "once they stop the terrorism, they can have a state."

No one doubts that the act will spark a new round of bloodshed in the Middle East, where the killing has united the Palestinians and most Arabs in grief and rage. There have already been reprisals, of course. Palestinian militants fired rockets at a checkpoint and one man managed to stab several Israelis with a knife. Also, it shouldn't go without mention that Palestinians rioting in the streets were shot and killed, including a 13-year-old boy.

But this is likely just the beginning. There will be suicide bombings as surely as spring approaches. Sharon's fist-pumping policy of assassination and brutality, far from quieting the Palestinians, has only strengthened their resolve.

Worse, Yassin's death has strengthened the very organization that it was supposed to punish. Danny Rubinstein, writing for the Israeli publication Haaretz, calls the assassination a victory for Hamas: "The more Israel hits Hamas leaders and rank-and-file members, the more their popularity climbs. In tandem, they become increasingly immune to operations by the (Palestinian Authority's) security force, since any such operation would only be interpreted as treacherous collaboration with Israel."

Palestinian Prime Minister Qureia's ability to negotiate has been severely compromised. Palestinians, distraught with anger and grief, are unlikely to be sated by negotiation and its largely invisible steps toward statehood -- with no historically validated reason to maintain that hope in any case. As hope for a Palestinian state dies the rising tide of desperation will make recruitment a snap for Hamas.

Assassinating the leaders of extremist groups only increases the sympathy for extremist views among Palestinians. And that brewing resentment will inevitably spill beyond Palestine's eroding borders. The Associated Press reports, "Thousands of Palestinians in occupied Iraq vowed to avenge Israel's killing of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, saying the battle against the 'enemy' was now in a decisive phase."

Perhaps now that America has chalked up another sworn enemy as a result of Sharon's failed policies (both echoed and supported by Bush), voters in both nations will wake up and consider the roots of Palestinian resentment. Considering the enormous financial and military support provided by the U.S. government, the power to create a viable and thriving Palestinian state -- and to remove the conditions that make terrorist recruitment easy -- lies in our hands. But given the current administration's track record, just broaching the subject of building a genuine peace will be considered as nothing short of "appeasement."

Evan Derkacz is an Editorial Fellow at AlterNet.

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